Laurence Dunbar’s poems “Douglass” and “We Wear the Mask” are both great examples of Realism in poetry. They contain most of the characteristics of Realism, including thoughts powered by rationalist beliefs, middle class heroes, and a focus on the physiology of many different people. All of this is delivered in two short poems that use simple poetic devices such as repetition to convey the thoughts of a group of people. Both poems concern the feelings of the African American population and how they have reacted to all of the social changes with antislavery movements and the treatment of all colored people.
A topic of the psychology of people caused by an environmental or social change is very common in works of Realism (Quinn). This is the case especially with Dunbar’s poem, “We Wear the Mask.” This poem is about the way that the African Americans act in comparison to how they are actually feeling. Dunbar says that they are wearing masks of grins and lies, while behind those masks there are really the tortured souls of a group of people (“We”). In “Douglass,” there is also the idea presented that most all of the African Americans are afraid and looking for comfort (“Douglass”). With both works, Dunbar presents a strong concern for the change in psychology of the African American people.
For most literary works of Realism, the protagonist is very average, or middle-class rather than the extraordinary character that can be seen in many past literary genres (Barney). That fact helps to make the characters and hero easier to relate to for the reader. This is the case for both of these poems to a certain extent. In both of these poems, the subject is the African American population and how they feel about the changes that have taken place and their overall treatment. In “Douglass”, the people referred to in the poem are afraid and looking for hope in a confusing world. The last lines are about how they are looking for someone or something to “give us comfort through the lonely dark (“Douglass”)”. In “We Wear the Mast” there is a very strong image of a group of people who are hiding their sorrow and broken spirits behind a mask of grins and lies. Both of these topics in each of the poems are what show the African Americans as very human, without the characteristics of heroes, because they have been reduced to only fear and sadness.
Both poems also use a simple language to address the message that they are trying to get across. Both rhyme schemes are very simple, but they each portray the strong emotion felt by the groups. This simple language is a major part of Realism literature, and both works use this characteristic to add passion and truly express the feelings of the African American population (Quinn).
The middle-class, average hero, concern with they psychology of a people, and simple language are all important parts of the literary genre of Realism. Laurence Dunbar included all of these characteristics of the genre in his two poems, “Douglass” and “We Wear the Mask.” Both are about the feelings and emotions felt by the African Americans who had been reverted to simple human nature of fear and sadness, which make them perfect examples of Realism poetry.
Barney, Brett, and Lisa Paddock, eds. "realism." Encyclopedia of American Literature: The Age of Romanticism and Realism, 1816–1895, vol. 2, Revised Edition. New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2008. Bloom's Literary Reference Online. Facts On File, Inc. Online. http://www.fofweb.com/activelink2.asp?ItemID=WE54&SID=5&iPin= EAmL0738&SingleRecord=True. February 15, 2011.
Dunbar, Paul Laurence. "Douglass." Glencoe American Literature. comp. Wilhelm, Jeffery. McGraw Hill. Columbus, OH. 2009. pg. 570.
Dunbar, Paul Laurence. "We Wear the Mask." Glencoe American Literature. comp. Wilhelm, Jeffery. McGraw Hill. Columbus, OH. 2009. pg. 571.
Quinn, Edward. "realism and naturalism in American literature." A Dictionary of Literary and Thematic Terms, Second Edition. New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2006. Bloom's Literary Reference Online. Facts On File, Inc. Online. http://www.fofweb.com/activelink2.asp?ItemID=WE54&SID=5&iPin= Gfflithem0707&SingleRecord=True. February 15, 2011.